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Review: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

Part of the joy of listening to really good jazz is the exciting spontaneity of improvisation. A rhythm that jumps out of nowhere, a melody that turns in an unexpected direction. In the cabaret show they are doing at the Cafe Carlyle, trumpeter Herb Alpert, his singer wife Lani Hall and the expert players behind them – the trio of Bill Cantos (piano), Hussain Jiffry (bass), Michael Shapiro (drums) – this thrilling spontaneity is on truly outlandish display.

I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert structures the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. A rhythmic twist that starts in the drums finds its way to the bass and then into Alpert’s trumpet line – or the other way around! Herb and the band may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance is utterly different. Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player, and Hall has that kind of liquid crystal voice that haunts songwriters’ dreams.

Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive – he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. Hall sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada”. In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from Alpert’s latest album Come Fly with Me, as well as the two albums they’ve recently recorded together, plus medleys of Tijuana Brass and Brasil ’66 hits.

Really, this is pure musical pleasure. During a particularly frisky version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, pianist Bill Cantos soared off into a vocal scat that mirrored his vigorous and playful improvisations on the keyboard. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Turn Me Loose

Turn Me Loose

This deserves the widest audience possible! It’s both one of the most important and funniest shows I’ve seen in quite some time, and this is in a year that also included the especially pungent and humane The Humans. Named after the final words of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Turn Me Loose is sharply focused on one of the sharpest wits and minds of the past hundred years, African-American comedian and activist Dick Gregory, played with equal parts panache and passion by Joe Morton.

One of the greatest talkers of his time, Gregory provides playwright Gretchen Law with abundant material, from both his stand up and his numerous speeches and interviews on behalf of the civil rights movement. She has successfully distilled it all down to only the funniest, pithiest and most visionary bits.

John Carlin plays a number of smaller roles ranging from hecklers to interviewers, starting out the show as a white comic opening for Gregory in the early 1960s, a very Borscht Belt “Take-my-wife-please” type. Law is very clever in having this brief “warm-up” act, to show what a marked contrast Gregory was to what came before him.

Turn Me Loose zig zags back and forth in time, mostly between the present (Gregory is still very much alive) and the height of his activist days, the 1960s. His work with the civil rights movement became so intense that one bit extracted from a 1968 stand up find him at a loss to find anything funny to say. Clearly he recovered, since the more contemporary material finds him in fine fettle, furious but still ferociously funny.

Gregory went on to become a bit of a conspiracy theorist, and Turn Me Loose largely skirts that side of him. The exception comes in those theories which time has proven to be true, such as the conspiracy to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the conspiracy of companies like Monsanto to always pursue profit over their customers’ health. This is truly essential viewing, and as such gets my highest recommendation.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Fully Committed

Fully Committed Lyceum Theatre Jessie Tyler Ferguson FULLY COMMITTED - PRODUCTION CREDITS  Person Placeholder Becky Mode Playwright  Jason Moore Jason Moore Director  Derek McLane Derek McLane Scenic Design  Person Placeholder Sarah Laux Costume Design  Person Placeholder Ben Stanton Lighting Design  Jill Du Boff Jill BC Du Boff Sound Design  Person Placeholder Polk & Co. General Press Representative  Person Placeholder Matt Polk Press Representative  Person Placeholder Tom D'Ambrosio Press Representative  Person Placeholder Jeffrey Fauver Press Representative  Barbara Whitman Barbara Whitman Producer  Patrick Catullo Patrick Catullo Producer

Jesse Tyler Ferguson has always balanced sweet likability with just a dash of acidic bite, and both qualities serve him well in Fully Committed. He brings a lot of warmth when he plays the central character Sam, a reservationist at one of New York’s trendiest restaurants. He also plays all of the people calling the restaurant – more than 40 in all – and has plenty of opportunity to display that comedic acidity playing the more venomous callers. That sweetness and acidity come together deliciously when Sam slyly gets back at some of his oppressors.

Ferguson isn’t afraid to go over the top when the character calls for it, and throws himself into the whole affair with great energy and elan, but every moment stays rooted in reality. Director Jason Moore must surely take some credit for that as well – both the dynamism and rootedness.

Playwright Becky Mode has aimed at creating a generally light hearted satire, and has successful hit that target. Though the play premiered in 1999, Mode has updated it to be thoroughly in line with today’s culinary trends and pop culture. There are hints at more emotional depth when dealing with Sam’s recently widowed father, but it never gets so heavy that it bogs down what is clearly Fully Committed‘s main ambition: pure entertainment. High art this ain’t, but that doesn’t really matter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Lady Bunny

Lady Bunny Trans Jester

Lady Bunny sings! In the past, she lip-synched her own voice for her song parodies, both medleys and single-song versions but now she does them live. It’s skipping a step and she’s a decent singer, so this new arrangement works well. Of course for her famous, zany Laugh-In style routines, she still lip-synched, and there was a number where she performed the attitude in her voice-over, but didn’t actually mouth the words. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Trans-Jester” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny is one of the smartest drag queens ever, and she is equally likely to launch into incisive political rants – my favorite parts of the show – or a steady stream of dick and poop jokes. She’s a powerful presence who also posses a terrific sense of when to keep it light. This show also explores her own complicated relationship with the wider transgender community, especially in the light of political correctness, which finally comes down to a more sophisticated version of “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

She never stays in one mode for too long, and while she might go all stream of consciousness at certain points, she never quite seems to ramble. The Lady isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – It’s a terrific balance, and probably the only way you could tell these on the edge jokes in a way that’s funny rather that truly offensive. She’s an energetic, mostly-for-the-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town!

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Rumer Willis

Rumer Willis photo credit credit David Andrako 2016_04_05_CafeCarlyle_20

This girl is the real deal! Rumer Willis may be the oldest daughter of actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, but to quote the song “God Bless the Child” – of which she sings a rousing rendition – she’s definitely “got her own!” Willis covers a very diverse array of material in her Café Carlyle debut, ranging from Kander & Ebb (she did make her Broadway debut in Chicago, after all) to Wynnonie Harris’s hilarious 1951 r&b shouter “Bloodshot Eyes”, to poppier neo-soul material by the likes of Amy Winehouse and Hozier.

Vocally, Willis resembles journeyman soul ladies of the 1960s like Barbara Lewis and Gloria Jones; not the most towering vocal instrument, but strong, flexible and quite expressive. She’s really good at getting inside the character of a song and acting – no, soulfully living its story.

Her between-song patter is relaxed, but could use some shaping. She shows enough potential that it would be worth the time of one of the masters of cabaret writing/directing – a Scott Wittman or Barry Kleinbort, say – to help her out. Slumming, she isn’t, for sure: Willis and music director James Sampliner have definitely given the evening a great ebb and flow. Never too many ballads together or anything like that.

Whether you like it hot and hard-driving or cool and smooth, Willis does it all with an ease and élan beyond her 27 years. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Cagney

CAGNEY 8

As energetic and optimistic as its subject, this James Cagney bio-musical is fizzy fun with just enough seriousness to make it a satisfying tribute to the pugnacious movie star. The show is above all a vehicle for Robert Creighton, who physically resembles Cagney, and who – more importantly – shares Cagney’s charisma and fleeted-footed dancing ability.

Creighton also wrote a handful of songs in the show’s score, showing a gift for doing pastiches of corny 1920s vaudeville, the milieu where Cagney got his show-biz start. The remainder of the business-like score is mostly by Christopher McGovern. The climaxes of both acts are nearly century-old production numbers composed by George M. Cohan, who Cagney played in the 1941 movie musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Director Bill Castellino keeps the show moving at a sprightly clip. The creative team in general have made the smart decision to emphasize the singing and dancing hoofer Cagney over the silver screen tough guy. For one thing, that’s the way Cagney himself would have wanted it – he hated being typecast as a gangster – and for another, more singing and dancing is obviously going to make a more entertaining musical.

Which brings us to the choreography of Joshua Bergasse, which elevates the evening from fun to truly fabulous entertainment. Of course Cagney/Cohan-style tap dance “hoofing” is the order of the day, and the routines Bergasse gives the cast are truly riveting.

Sometimes I feel bookwriter Peter Colley setting up a scene for no other reason than requiring the character’s to tap dance – a cordial competition between Cagney and his friend Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) springs to mind. But as long as the ensuing number is as exciting as these are, frankly I don’t give a damn. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Filed under musical, Off-Broadway, review, theatre

Review: Bright Star

Bright Star-Capture_3710-V2-RGB

Affable and inoffensive – those are the adjectives that leap to mind when thinking about the Steve Martin / Edie Brickell bluegrass musical Bright Star. It’s a perfectly pleasant evening in the theatre, but on a Broadway musical landscape populated by big, brassy entertainments on one hand, and fresh, innovate think pieces on the other, it may have a difficult time keeping it’s darling little head held high.

Bright Star tells the story of Alice Murphy, a North Carolina literary editor. When she encounters an aspiring young author – a small town soldier just home from World War II – a chain of events is set in motion that take Alice back to the best and worst moments of her own youth.

The best thing about Bright Star is the lovely, delicate and even sometimes sophisticated bluegrass music. As with Sting’s The Last Ship, there’s a rich vein of melody here that is often missed in shows by composers devoted to musicals.

Credit for this must go mostly to Martin – he may best known as a comic actor and writer, but he’s been a master of bluegrass banjo just as long as he’s been a comedian. Over the last decade or so, he’s devoted a lot of energy to composing progressive bluegrass songs (often with Brickell) and almost instantly gained recognition as one of the leading practitioners of the form.

The words – both Martin’s book and his and Brickell’s lyrics – are not nearly as successful. The plot is predictable, but Martin is a sly enough comic writer to play to both the part of the audience that is ahead of the story and that part which is surprised by it. In fact, the revelation of a key happening late in the show is written and played for comedy, since playing it totally straight would be maudlin and laughable in all the wrong ways. Still, a bit too predictable.

I had a decent enough time at Bright Star. I recommend it to you mostly because its charms, though not insignificant, might be easy to miss on today’s Broadway.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Filed under Broadway, musical, review, theatre